Lyric Theatre managing director Eric Evans recalled cleaning out the theatre and finding a box from a long-ago era labeled “colored tickets only.”
“I know from history, they tell us, if you were a person of color, you could not go in the front door,” Evans said, referring to the Lyric’s early years. “You had to go up that fire escape, and it went to the balcony.”
While that tidbit from history is nothing to celebrate, the public is invited to an evening at the Lyric Thursday, Feb. 28, commemorating Black History Month.
The highlight of the evening is the showing of the HBO film “Bessie,” made in 2015 and featuring Queen Latifah as the legendary African American singer Bessie Smith.
Smith, who was known as the Empress of Blues in the vaudeville era, died in a car accident in 1937 at age 43.
The evening begins with a Q&A, discussion and refreshments at 6:30 p.m. in the Lyric studio, followed by the showing of the movie at 7:30 p.m. Evans said it’s important to note that the movie is for mature audiences.
The evening at the Lyric is sponsored by Steves’ Market and Deli, Tr3s Leches Bakery and Draco’s Janitorial and Auto Detailing.
Evans said in a Facebook post: “When we provide tours here at the Lyric, we talk of these horrific moments of prejudice and dishonoring of people. A great movie, ‘Bessie,’ speaks to the entertainment period during the early years of the Lyric as a vaudeville theatre (opened in 1914) and how the trains would transport entertainers to these vaudevillian theaters all across the country.
“May we all learn and grow and change from our pitiful, sometimes murderous treatment of people over the years. Even today, we can be better.”
Steve Harris, co-owner of Steves’ Market and Deli, said the idea for showing the movie came about following an exchange of messages between Harris and Evans.
“Last week I made a post on Steve’s Market and Deli Facebook about the history of the Lyric and segregation that went on back in the day, with ‘colored folk’ being in the balcony and ‘white folk’ being down below,” Harris said.
“Eric responded with (a) post which talks about discrimination back in the day, and how vaudeville entertainers traveled by train. We got to talking and we thought this would be a great opportunity for us to sponsor this movie. I’d never seen the movie, never heard of the movie.”
Harris said the Lehnis Railroad Museum has also been asked to be a partner in the event since the railroad museum has an ongoing display of the Pullman train porters.
“We’ve invited them to partner with us in this as well, because we basically want to explore the history of Brownwood,” Harris said.
“Part of the history of Brownwood is segregation and racism, and the good, the bad and the ugly, how far we’ve come, the folks that are no longer with us that maybe sat in balcony. This movie is about vaudeville. It’s about Bessie.”
Evans said the movie is “about Bessie being discovered by the population at large, and in that process, she is an amazing singer who sings jazz — black jazz.”